What does Bethel, Alaska, have in common with San Francisco?

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 22, 2009 

City leaders in Alaska's biggest rural hub, Bethel, voted last week to ban the plastic bags and takeout containers that litter the surrounding tundra for miles with twisted, windblown plastic.

Aimed at stores and restaurants, it's a second try at grocery-bag prohibition for the city. Voters overturned a similar ban just eight years ago after businesses rebelled.

This time, say advocates like Kathy Hanson, "People were ready for it."

For one thing, she said, they know they have options now like reusable bags and recyclable plastic. Plus they're hearing more about where the plastic bags end up. "It's throughout our food chain now," Hanson said. "It's in the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, it's in the plankton."

Last spring, the spongy tundra around the dump looked like a tossed-plastic salad. There's no curb-side garbage service in Bethel, so people lug their trash to neighborhood Dumpsters where the breeze — or ravens — sends loose bags parachuting through town.

Other remote Alaska communities have already made the leap. Hooper Bay, a sprawling Yup'ik village of 1,200, pulled plastic bags from the shelf earlier this month after using federal grant money to buy reusable canvas grocery bags for every household, said environmental coordinator Bernard Murran.

There, the city and tribal governments agreed to ban the bags after people reported seeing plastic pasted to shores and beaches, hidden in burrows and woven into the nests of shorebirds. "(When) women go pick berries or wild greens, they encounter many of these plastic shopping bags across the tundra," Murran said.

In 2007, San Francisco became the first major city to ban plastic at the checkout counter. Juneau lawmakers proposed bills the same year that would have forced Alaska retailers to collect a 15-cent tax on each plastic bag used by customers, with the money going to reduce and recycle marine debris. The proposals never reached a vote.

It's unclear how many Alaska communities have launched bag bans of their own. Of the Alaska Commercial Co.'s 30-plus stores, six are in places with plastic bans, said vice president of operations Walter Pickett.

Bethel, population 5,700, is now the largest. The A.C. store there registers roughly 1,700 transactions each day, said grocery manager Seth Madole. On average, he said, each of those customer walks away with two bags.

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